Retailers: The Latest Threat to Big Banks


Walking through a Costco (NAS: COST) several years ago, I thought I'd glimpsed the limit of supersized American shopping culture. There, nestled in between cases of beer stacked to the ceiling and plasma-screen televisions by the pallet-full, was a long row of Liberace-white grand pianos. I half expected to round a corner to find a row of shiny black Mercedes.

So far as I know, the discount giant isn't selling luxury cars by the gross yet, but it is peddling home mortgages. As absurdly entertaining as that might at first seem, it's a startling development in the financial sector -- one that big mortgage originators like Bank of America (NYS: BAC) , Wells Fargo (NYS: WFC) , and JPMorgan Chase (NYS: JPM) shouldn't take lightly.

Somebody please sell me something
Since the financial crash, consumer credit has tightened for at least two reasons. It was defaulting mortgage-backed securities, packed with defaulting subprime loans driven by loose lending standards, that officially kicked off the crash, so lending standards had to be tightened up. And as regulators have called for higher capital reserves, banks have been lending less and less in order to meet them.

But this is America, and when people are determined to buy something, someone will find a way to facilitate it. So Costco now offers home mortgages. It also sells car and home insurance. And Costco isn't the only retailer edging into the financials sphere. Last month, Walmart began offering a prepaid credit card, issued in conjunction with American Express (NYS: AXP) , that's not connected to a bank account.

Finance hates a vacuum
"The banks are going to scream bloody murder when retailers try to obtain banking charters," shopper behavioral researcher Paco Underhill recently told The New York Times. Yes, they are. But it's hard to blame retailers for dipping their toes into financial waters: There's money to be made. Americans will not be denied their debt. And if the banks can't, or won't, lend to a credit-addicted populace, then some other entity will.

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Fool contributor John Grgurich owns no shares of any of the companies mentioned in this column. Follow John's dispatches from the bleeding edge of capitalism on Twitter @TMFGrgurich. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco Wholesale, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Wells Fargo and Costco Wholesale. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a write covered strangle position in American Express. The Motley Fool has a positively delightful disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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